I've noticed a subtle but undeniable change in the Virtual Console over the last few months. Look back to when the service launched, and the games on offer were generally colourful, cheerful efforts, clearly aimed at capturing the sort of family market targeted by those plug-in TV games and Press The Red Button fare on Sky.
But there's been a steady and noticeable change of direction recently, with the Hanabi Festival cavalacade of cult curiosities and the addition of Neo Geo to the console line-up as the most obvious manifestations of a new direction. I can only assume that someone, somewhere deep in the bowels of Nintendo's hi-tech robot fortress has crunched some numbers to see what people are really downloading, but this week's trio pretty much confirms it - the Virtual Console is now the domain of the hardcore gamer. I mean, just look at this...
Gate of Thunder
- Platform: TurboDuo
- Wii Points: 800
- In Real Money: GBP 6 / EUR 8 (approx)
They don't come much more hardcore than Gate of Thunder. For one thing, it was released on an incredibly obscure console - the TurboDuo, a souped-up combination of the TurboGrafx 16 and the TurboGrafx CD. In fact, Gate of Thunder was actually bundled with the USD 299 machine when it launched in the US in 1992, so well did it show off the advantages of the hardware.
But Gate of Thunder is also hardcore because it's one of those intense horizontal-scrolling shoot-'em-ups that attract the gnarled fingers of dedicated arcade gamers like Japanese puzzle games attract Tom Bramwells. Swarms of them. Terrifying.
At first, you'll be hard pushed to see what makes it so special. You scroll into the guts of an enormous mothership, blasting waves of enemies as they float or crawl along the top and bottom of the screen. Pick-ups unlock the obligatory floating appendages which can be used to absorb attacks, or to fire behind you. Weapons include three-way lasers, missiles and the sort of ultra-wide screen-clearing beam weapon that you desperately try and keep hold of. If you've played any entry from the R-Type or Thunderforce series, you'll be on extremely familiar territory.
The music, which originally used the CD technology to wow players with its high fidelity sound, is worthy of special note. It's a catchy dose of melodic rock that wouldn't sound out of place in a Brat Pack movie, probably during the final act climax where Rob Lowe (or maybe Andrew McCarthy) runs through rain-slicked streets to proclaim his love for Molly Ringwald.
So, cheesy musical bombast aside, Gate of Thunder isn't the most innovative shooter around, but it is still one of the best. It is, like so many of its peers, absolutely brutal but, unlike many of its peers, it never feels unfair. I've railed before about the notion that old arcade games which slaughter the player somehow represent a pure state of "hardcore gaming", because most of these games were simply responding to the need to keep coins shovelling into slots rather than providing a true challenge. While Gate of Thunder may be hard it doesn't take long to realise that, as with all the great shmups, every wave of enemies and every nook and cranny of the seven frantic levels has been carefully crafted to reward concentration and punish stupidity rather than simply throwing a million bullets at you for the sake of it.
It's fair to say that few players will rise to the challenge, making it more essential for the genre completist who has already defeated R-Type III, Gradius III and all the other shooters available for download, but there's no denying it's yet another great cult title getting a deserved airing thanks to the Virtual Console.